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Wanda Behrens-Horrell
Wanda Behrens-Horrell L.C.S.W., N.C.P

The Child Performer

The making of a star.

Whether in acting, modeling, or sports, the world is full of children in the pursuit of stardom. The drive for fame can result from a parent's unfulfilled childhood dreams or from a child's inner vision of celebrity and success. Among those few children who actually attain fame, some go through the experience emotionally unscathed, but others are not as fortunate. How does stardom affect a child's emotional growth? Are there long-term effects that will impact his or her development? What are the signs that a young star is at risk emotionally and physically?

The answers to these questions will depend on the motivation of the child and parent, as well as the child's age, length of time in the spotlight, level of commitment, work environment, and financial gains.

Child actors often are overprotected and pampered, which can lead to difficulties in learning how to attend to everyday tasks such as scheduling, doing laundry, and cooking meals—skills that most of us acquire during our growing up years. They can feel awkward when socializing with their normal peers. In other ways, they are overdeveloped as a result of having been exposed to the fast-paced and lucrative world of show business.

What makes a child actor a successful adult? "I would never wish my upbringing on anyone," Mary-Kate Olsen told Marie Claire magazine. "But I wouldn't take it back for the world." The Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, made their screen debut at the age of 1, and what followed was a childhood of stardom and fame. Now, at the age of 25, the Olsen sisters focus mainly on fashion.

Childhood stars such as Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman, and Brooke Shields eased their transition from childhood to a healthy adulthood by attending college before returning to show business. Similarly, Leonardo DiCaprio, Scarlett Johansson, and Kristen Stewart shifted into adult roles unscathed by drugs or arrests and continue to enjoy successful acting careers. Others—such as Patty Duke, Macaulay Culkin, and Drew Barrymore—struggled with drugs and alcohol. Rusty Hamer of The Danny Thomas Show committed suicide. Danny Bonaduce of The Partridge Family was arrested for assault. Diff'rent Strokes actor Todd Bridges, who battled crack cocaine addiction for several years, was tried for the attempted murder of a drug dealer (he was acquitted). And Lindsay Lohan has been arrested twice for DUI.

Because of the nature of show business, child actors are often exposed to drugs, alcohol, and sex at an early age. At the same time, young actors must constantly cope with rejection, jealousy, self-scrutiny, obsessive thoughts, and the nonstop need to be perfect.

These children are at high risk of becoming emotionally unstable and of becoming drug, alcohol, or sex abusers. Children at different ages display behavioral changes that might indicate that they are at risk. Those between the ages of 2 and 8 might exhibit the following signs of stress: regression (displaying infantile behaviors, thumb-sucking, bed-wetting), depression, crying, anxiety, clinging, and temper tantrums. Indications that teens are troubled include poor grades, change of friends, isolation, distancing from family, oversleeping, drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, cutting, lying, and keeping secrets.

Is it possible to be a child actor and develop normally? Only if the parents do what is in the best interest of the child's development and well-being.

2011 Wanda Horrell, LCSW-R, NCPsyA. All rights reserved.

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About the Author
Wanda Behrens-Horrell

Wanda Behrens-Horrell, L.C.S.W., N.C.Psy.A, is a child developmental psychoanalyst in Scarsdale, NY.

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